Human rights activists have criticised a newspaper in Uganda for publishing a list of men they claim are gay.

Red Pepper claims it did so to expose how “the terrible vice known as sodomy is eating up our society.”

Sodomy carries a life sentence in Uganda under laws that have remained in force since the country was a British colony.

“For years, President Yoweri Museveni’s government routinely threatens and vilifies lesbians and gays, and subjects sexual-rights activists to harassment,” said Jessica Stern, researcher in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights.

“At a moment when sensational publicity has spread fear among a whole community, the authorities must exercise their responsibility to protect, not persecute.”

The 45 men listed by the newspaper include army officers, priests, university lecturers, entertainers, bankers, students and lawyers.

It also published details of venues popular with gays and lesbians, and is threatening to publish a list of suspected lesbians.

Five men were arrested after the publication of the list, and more have gone into hiding. There is pressure on the police to deal with an emerging gay culture in Uganda.

The current tabloid hysteria is a welcome distraction from the fact that the country has serious internal problems, with a civil war with the Lord’s Resistance Army raging in the north and the government using torture against its opponents.

Since Yoweri Museveni became president in 1986, more than 1.2 million Ugandans have been displaced and tens of thousands have been killed.

An estimated 20,000 children have been kidnapped by the LRA for use as child soldiers and slaves since 1987.

Attacks on political freedom in the country, including the arrest and beating of opposition MPs, has led to international criticism, and in May 2005 the UK government withheld part of its aid to the country.

The LGBT rights movement, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) has circulated a letter of protest and defiance to the Uganda media.

SMUG chairperson, Victor Juliet Mukasa said the men named are, “living under unbelievable fear of being arrested, ostracised by their families or sacked from their jobs.

“SMUG is therefore making a loud call to everyone who believes in the rights of human beings to stand up and protest along with us to put an end to such injustices against LGBTI and other marginalized people in Uganda.”